My experience with using premade blog themes, and also, my current favorite design studio!
I’ve been blogging in some shape and form since 2012. I know, that’s a long time. Of course, I haven’t been the most regular or the most dedicated blogger ever… I’ve truly used my blog(s) as an occasional outlet for my words and photos, and just as a hobby at that. At various points in my blogging journey, I’ve tried to step up the game and become more regular, more disciplined about blogging, but as you all know by now, that hasn’t really happened.
That’s actually okay with me. I know the outcome (in terms of readers/followers) has been pretty much in line with my efforts (:P), so I’ve never lost sleep over that. I am, however, so, so, so thankful that there are a few people who’ve continued to read my posts, as sporadic as they’ve been over the years – seriously, you guys are the best! :)
Anyway, that was just a bit of a background about my blogging journey. Things are better now, though… which means, I am getting better at the blogging thing. That’s mostly because it’s a hobby that I truly enjoy and I like having a space to connect with like-minded people, so I am making the time for it, at a pace which feels manageable to me (no daily posts for this gal, though – I just can’t do that!).
A lot has changed over the years in terms of the kind of content I’ve been putting out and also, just trends in blogging in general. However, through it all, one thing that hasn’t changed for me has been my near permanent quest to find the perfect premade blog theme. You see, I wasn’t ever making money from my blog (and that was never really the intention – I didn’t even use affiliate links till about 12-18 months ago!), so there was just no way that I could ever afford a custom design for my blog. And it also didn’t make sense to spend thousands of dollars getting a quality custom design done if I was only going to use the space sporadically.
In terms of blog design, there are obviously plenty of free themes available, and while that is how I started out (when my blog name was “Inspired Idiot”(!!!), and no, it no longer exists!), I soon wanted something a little more put together. Enter, the world of premade blog themes. Again, lots of options there. You just have to search on Etsy (true story, the first few premade themes I used, I found them on Etsy) or Creative Market to get a sense of the multitude of premade themes out there.
What I’ve looked for in premade themes has almost always been a simplistic, minimal design aesthetic. A few of my favourite studios/makers that I’ve used over the years are Light Morango (no longer active now, unfortunately), Blogzilla Studio, Station Seven, and of course now, EmPress Themes. The designs offered by these studios have a lot of things in common – clean and attractive layouts, easy to use features, and responsive designers (I cannot stress this last bit enough!!!).
Over the years, having used so many premade blog themes for my blog layout, I’ve learnt a few lessons along the way and thought I’ll share them with you.
1| Know what you truly want: This requires you to be really, really honest about the kind of content you’re producing and the direction you’re moving towards. When I was contemplating a redesign in the early part of 2017, I prowled through templates after templates where one of the most arresting features was a landing page layout. Now, I think a great landing page layout is super usp to have if you’re selling something or offering some services. For most blogs, and certainly for me, a fancy-schmancy landing page was not of much value. And yet, I was sucked in with the charmingness of it all, and ended up purchasing a theme that came with a gorgeous landing page layout. It took me about a week of trying to make it work for me before I finally called it quits. It just did not work for me, or the kind of content that I was creating.
Lesson learnt. I think it’s crucial to have a list of features that you’d definitely want in your design/theme, and go from there. A premade theme with a lot of features does not ensure either a) quality, or b) that it would work for you and your kind of content.
A few questions that you should consider while evaluating themes:
- Is it mobile responsive?
- Does it give you options for both sidebar/single column layouts?
- Does the archive section look formatted and pretty (I’ve come across so many themes where the main pages are beautifully laid out, but the archives are just a carryover of the old Blogger style archives!!!)?
- How much space is there for the header?
- Is there footer space available for widgets?
- How much widget space is there?
- Is the pricing too good to be true?
- Is there an e-commerce shop integration (important if you are offering digital or physical products)?
- Does the demo site take too long to load?
- Does the theme have slider features (in case that is important to you)?
- What kind of support features are offered?
- How long is support offered for?
2| Responsiveness of the designer(s): After having used premade blog themes for my blog(s) for over 6 years now, I cannot tell you how important it is to work with designers who are responsive and offer solutions to your theme-related problems. A lot of web/graphic designers offer premade themes to reach out to a larger customer base, because surely not all bloggers can afford custom blog designs. Some designers continue offering custom designs to higher-paying clients at the same time. Which is fine, really. However, the problem arises when they get too busy on their custom work (and other things in life) to offer support to their premade theme customers (typical value vs volume problem). I’ve come across several designers/studios who flat out refuse to offer support on themes purchased beyond maybe a day or two, and become completely unresponsive beyond that time period. Which kinda sucks, because sure, I may not be paying you in the thousands, but I have invested my hard-earned money with you, so I’d like at least a response to emails if nothing else.
Now, I get that no one would offer customizations for free, but for basic theme-related queries, I think there should be a) a well-detailed FAQ/troubleshooting guide, and/or b) friendly customer service.
If you’ve got the time before you switch themes/start a new blog, I’d highly recommend that you first contact the designer on email and get a sense of his/her responsiveness. It can save you a lot of energy/time down the line when you truly get stuck with something.
3| Scope for customization: I don’t know html coding to save my life, but after having spent 6 years blogging in some capacity, I know I can change things up on my site with a little bit of CSS. When choosing a new theme, I always make it a point to check whether I am allowed to customize beyond the usual colour/font etc. because I have seen some designers state that their themes are not to be tinkered around with using CSS, and they allow for very limited exceptions to that rule. To be fair, I saw this a lot more in the 2014/15 phase, but it never hurts to check.
Another customization aspect you should consider is whether the designer/studio offers any customizations (for a fee typically). I usually shoot an email to the designer to check with them, and get an estimate from them about rates. That allows me to figure out how much more money I would have to spend to get my blog to look exactly how I want it.
4| Affiliate program: It may not be relevant for all bloggers, but something to consider is whether your designer offers an affiliate program. If you are a loyal customer, you could stand to make some money, and that wouldn’t be a bad proposition to consider. It’s not something that I have actively looked at, but it could be a useful feature for you to keep in mind.
Over the last 8 months, I have been using EmPress Themes exclusively. I first purchased the Miramar theme, and when they launched Presidio about two weeks ago (which I think is their best yet!), I happily made the switch. I am still tweaking a few elements, but overall, I am in love with how my blog looks. And also, I could not have had a better experience with using EmPress Themes.
I’ve been a long time follower of Victoria and Lisa’s work before they even launched EmPress Themes, having seen them work their design + coding magic with some of my fave bloggers. So when Victoria announced early last year that they would be launching a premade template shop, it was a no-brainer for me that I would make the switch as and when they did.
The themes are rock solid and satisfy most of the items on my checklist. Additionally, given that both of them have been bloggers for long and knowing that they value the reader experience, I knew that they won’t inflate the backend with unnecessary code which would slow down sites. Oh, and also, they are really good with the support that they offer and they are incredibly responsive on email (which trust me, makes a massive difference to my overall user experience), and I cannot recommend their themes enough. And why stop at the themes? They’ve used all their design + coding genius to design a host of useful plugins for websites, including plugins for newsletter opt-ins, archives, shop pages etc.
In case you couldn’t tell, I am in love with EmPress Themes, and if you’re looking for premade blog themes for WordPress, I’d suggest you make this your first stop. And no, I am not being paid to tell you that. :)
I’d love to hear from you – how do you deal with your blog’s design? Have you used premade blog themes? Which are your favourite theme studios?
Image via Unsplash/Kara Michelle.